Archive for Virginia

A Field Trip to Washington’s Gardens at Mount Vernon

Beautiful Mt. Vernon wearing her new "old" colors again.

Beautiful Mt. Vernon mansion house wearing her new “old” colors again.

Each year on George Washington’s Birthday, the Mount Vernon Estate opens its gates to the public for free. As you might imagine, it is filled with people coming to celebrate the day. Since it’s right down the street from my home, I try to go every year. There is always something that is undergoing a renovation, and it’s great to see what’s newly been uncovered with all the advancements in technology they have. The mansion house has now been painted with colors that have been discovered to be the original — very different from the colors we all thought for years to be accurate. For at least the last century, it has been painted white and it’s bright red roof shown against the blue sky. Now the colors are much softer and more muted. A golden tan is on the field of the house, and the roof is a much softer red. It’s very pretty, but for those of us who see it everyday, quite a change!

The amazing view from the veranda looks exactly as it did when George Washington lived there.

The amazing view from the veranda looks exactly as it did when George Washington lived there.

The “back yard” of the house it is still just as it was when President Washington lived there. Believe it or not, the view from the veranda has been protected in a way that you cannot see any other structures across the Potomac River — 80 square miles of protection to be exact! I think that’s an amazing accomplishment. All the lawn that you see is trimmed by a scythe, no mowers used here. It’s quite impressive to watch. The estate’s team of gardeners have a wealth of knowledge about the colonial era tools, and there are special tours where they will demonstrate many of them. If you get a chance to visit, you might want to call ahead and request a special tour!

The inside of the orangery at Mt. Vernon

The inside of the orangery at Mount Vernon.

This year I went specifically to see the orangery and it’s surrounding garden. This area was used in housing the small citrus trees that they grew in planters. The trees would be outside in the warm months and moved indoors into the orangery in the winter. It has a dark colored slate floor, and masonry walls which would soak up all the warmth from the sun during the day through the south facing, floor to ceiling windows. Then in the evening, the shutters would be closed, and the floor would radiate it’s heat back into the room, keeping it above freezing, and all it’s tender trees and plants would be kept alive. They have not quite finished this renovation and the plants are not inside yet, but soon it will be full of tender plants.

Enjoying a warm and beautiful walk in the brick walled garden. A cherry tree espallied against the wall is almost ready to spring back into growing from the extra warmth of the wall.

Enjoying a warm and beautiful walk in the brick walled garden. A cherry tree espallied against the wall is almost ready to spring back into growing from the extra warmth of the wall.

On the outside of the building there is a large garden surrounded by brick walls to protect against nibbling deer and other animals. This area was mainly used to start new plants for transplant into the other landscaped areas and was used as sort of a colonial era plant nursery. President Washington was the recipient of many gifts of plants and new varieties of seeds and, according to his journals, enjoyed experimenting with them.

The walls of the garden have many different varieties of espallied trees — mostly fruiting trees like apple, peach, fig and cherry. They were grown against the walls for extra warmth to prolong the growing season, and also pruned to just a few feet tall, to make harvesting the fruit easy. The colonial people were very clever in their farming practices!

Early Autumn is when the figs ripen to perfection!

This fig was from a past Mount Vernon plant sale, one of the Washington’s favorite!

 

Along the brick lined paths they additionally would grow herbs and medicinal plants. A very diverse variety of plants grew there. The tiny little boxwood plants that you see edging the walk, figs trees, herbs and many other plants and seeds are sold in the annual plant sale fundraiser, coming up in Garden Week, another really fun event!

 

Here is a close up on the apple trees. February and early March are when the do a major pruning on them to keep them low, and easy to harvest

Here is a close up on the apple trees in the larger vegetable garden. February and early March are when they are pruned to keep them low, and easy to harvest.

 

 

There is a huge vegetable garden on the other side of the mansion as well. With hundreds of mouths to feed, this was a most important garden, and it was in constant rotation of crops. Lettuces, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, melon and many more things grew here. This season the early spring onions and cabbages were looking great.

 

 

 

 

 

A dove with an olive branch sits atop Mt. Vernon, home of George Washington

A dove with an olive branch sits atop the cupola on the mansion house- — what a fantastic view!

I always hate to leave Mt. Vernon estate, but the afternoon was coming to an end. So until I am back there next year, Happy Birthday George Washington! And happy gardening to the rest of us-

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Making the Most of the Weirdest Weather Ever

Wild weather going from 70's to 20's with thunder, snow and hail, then back to sun- breaking records almost every day.

Wild weather going from 70′s to 20′s with thunder, snow and hail, then back to sun- breaking records almost every day.

We are having some truly crazy weather here in Mount Vernon. Over the last week, we have had a daily high of 74 degrees and a daily high 38 degrees; snow, hail, sun, and rain; and three or four days with 60+ mile an hour winds! It seems like we are having records broken every day. You never know what will be in store from one minute to the next.

I’ve been making the most of the nice days and getting lots done in the garden. There have been some interesting things — and some not so — but it’s been great to just be outside soaking it all in. Here are a few things that I’m doing here that I hope will be a useful reminder to you in your gardens.

An easy fix for mature grasses with a bare center- read all about it here!

An easy fix for mature grasses with a bare center — read all about it here!

When we’ve had a nice afternoon here and there, I managed to get at least one or two ornamental grasses trimmed down. With more than a dozen out in the garden, this is the most time consuming of all of the cutting-back tasks.  Mature grasses always start to die back in the middle after a few years, and it can start to look like a doughnut with all the growth around the edge and bare in the center. I have a tip for working with these: If you have a saws-all you can use a long blade to cut around the inner circle and remove it. This will dull the blade, but just keep it for this duty — makes it so much easier to cut out the fibrous, tough center. The bare center then can be then easily be filled in with a chunk of fresh, new growth from the outer edge, making the plant good as new.

These grasses can grow to be more than three feet in diameter in just a few years, so an alternative would be to divide it in fourths (or more) and turn one plant into many. Gardener’s gold! I have seven of them trimmed down now, so I’m well on my way. And — once you have finished trimming down the tops, don’t forget to clean out the old leaves and debris that settle in to the center during the course of the previous year. It will make the crown of the plant much healthier, and as a bonus it will look much nicer, too.

First Spring flowers are already blooming! Time to scratch up the mulch and enjoy the fresh Earth scent!

First spring flowers are already blooming! Time to scratch up the mulch and enjoy the fresh Earth scent!

Now that we are starting to have warmer days, I like to stir up the mulch. It can become so compacted over the winter when it freezes and thaws. By stirring it up, it is much more porous so the spring rains can more easily soak in. It also makes the mulch look fresh and nice.

This is also the perfect time to check on emerging bulbs and perennials. I like to take the time to clear out the branches and leaves that have blown in, and give the garden beds a good edge for the upcoming growing season. Another tip — use your senses to evaluate your soil. It should have a beautiful fresh earth scent, as you stir it up. If it doesn’t, remember where and return with some nice compost to stir in when the soil has warmed. Ditto that if you see an area where rain ponds up, or there is moss or heavy clay.

The roses are already sprouting leaves in this warm weather- time for a major pruning.

The roses are already sprouting leaves in this warm weather — time for a major pruning.

Right now is the perfect time of the year to trim up rose bushes. Leave five or so main branches, and cut out any that cross. Make your cut about 12-18″ up the branch just above an outward facing leaf bud.

Last year I heard a new tip and really like it: sprinkle cinnamon on the soil surrounding the rosebush about a foot in diameter. It keeps fungus at bay. It really works. I had no black spot at all on the leaves of the bushes where I did this.

On to a reminder about some of the ugly necessities in the garden. After 17 years, we are replacing the A/C system. I wish they lasted longer, but even though we have ours serviced every year, there are only so many years of life in them. Here’s a tip I’ve mentioned before, but bears repeating: make sure to trim any bushes or hedging back so that the unit has at least a couple of feet of breathing room around it. You will have perfect air circulation around the unit and the technicians will have room to service it.  Thank goodness for that invention, makes life so much more enjoyable!

I also made some progress clearing out a space to dedicate for storing my recycling bins and trashcan. It’s a little more visible than I’d like, so I’m still thinking about what I might do differently to improve on it.

On an exceptional day last week, we took a field trip to Mt. Vernon Estate, just down the street. More on that next time!

On an exceptional day last week, we took a field trip to Mt. Vernon Estate, just down the street. More on that next time!

In between some more wild weather, we had a beautiful day to take a field trip to George Washington’s home, Mt. Vernon. I’ll be writing the next blog on some really inventive gardening tips from there that are still valid today!

I hope you’ve been able to get out in the garden on your good days, and may we have many more to come. Enjoy!

 

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Happy Thanksgiving to One and All-

Wishing a happy and healthy Thanksgiving to one and all-

 

Thanksgiving Day 2016

Thanksgiving Day 2016

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A Long Goodbye to Summer Heat

This pretty lemon/lime coleus has done well in the summer heat. Watering at least once a day has been a key!

This pretty lemon/lime coleus has done well in the summer heat — watering it at least once a day has been the key! It attracts butterflies and hummingbirds, too!

Here in the mid-Atlantic, this has been a really rough summer, and the climate change has been very pronounced. Officially, it is the second hottest summer on record. With well over 50 days of temps in the mid-90′s and higher, the plants and trees are struggling — so much so that I am rethinking the location of many different plants in my garden. The micro-climate in my yard is hotter than the officially recorded temps by usually around five degrees. I think that is mostly due to the fact that we don’t have many shade trees on the property.

It’s a good time to take inventory of how the plants are faring. I think it’s interesting to compare how the same variety of plants do on various sides of the house, getting sun at different times of the day.

I am concerned about a row of euonymous that I planted along the front walk. Each spring, they start off looking amazing and full but lose their leaves by the end of summer, leaving them looking like bare stalks — not pretty. Those will be removed, and in their place I will add more liriope, and just fill the walkway garden with it, since it has done exceptionally well in that exposure.

The other hits in the front garden are the Hyacinth bean vine that I started from seed from last year’s winner, and also this gorgeous lemon/lime coleus with purple flower stalks. Both of these have been attracting butterflies and hummingbirds!

The purple flowering hyacinth vine has also come into it's prime in this heat.

The purple flowering hyacinth vine started from last year’s seeds has also come into its prime in this heat.

On the other side of the house in the east garden, I have a huge amount of beautiful white iris that are struggling in the intense amount of afternoon sun, as well as lamb’s ears that are always looking bedraggled. They will both be removed as well. The garden on that side is now getting established, and the crepe myrtle trees have grown to a point that they are blocking an unappealing view, so I couldn’t be happier about that! I might not even install anything else in that garden, and leave them some extra space. Deep watering has kept them in good health, so just adding some extra mulch is all that is needed.

The underplanted iris and lamb's ears will be removed, and give the crepe myrtles so more space. They have grown quite a lot this season.

The underplanted iris and lamb’s ears will be removed to give the crepe myrtles more space. They are exceptional trees for hot climate and have grown quite a lot this season.

 

In the back yard, I have some renovating to do. After 20 plus years, and even a move from our old house to this one, the planters we built from pressure treated wood are on borrowed time. I am rethinking how we might rework a privacy screen for under the deck, and then add to the flowering bounty underneath. The knockout roses and beautiful peonies that I currently have in pots, as well as some of the white iris I am removing from the east garden will be planted there. I’ll increase the garden’s size to accommodate them as needed. They’re my “green children” after all!

I have a couple of beautiful photos to share of the Labor Day weekend’s sunset here, and a last photo of this summer’s front door — next time you see it, it will be decked out for autumn, and hopefully a lot cooler! Until then — Happy gardening!

The setting sun on Labor Day weekend from ythe front garden.

The setting sun on Labor Day weekend from the front garden.

And a minute later-

And a minute later-

Pink glow on the front door from the setting sun- goodbye summer!

Pink glow on the front door from the setting sun — goodbye summer! Hello Fall!

 

 

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A Bright Spot on a Rainy Day

In the pink-

In the pink!

Hi, everyone! I’m about ready to start building an ark. We have smashed through a century-old record for the most rainy days in a row. The previous record was 13 days, and we are now in our 16th day of rain! The street lights are staying on all day, because it’s so drab and dark. I, for one, need some springtime cheer, so I thought I’d post some bright spots from the garden on this rainy day…

Long shot through the azaleas to the east garden-

Long shot through the azaleas to the east garden.

The glorious white irises-

The glorious white irises.

The happy yellow flag irises- always make me smile!

The happy yellow flag irises — always make me smile!

Some beautiful cosmos from seeds a friend gave me-  P.S. this is the perfect time to sow seeds outdoors, now that the fear of frost is over.

Some beautiful cosmos started from seeds a friend gave me. P.S.: This is the perfect time to sow seeds outdoors, now that the risk of frost is over.

The pansies that I planted last fall are making a spectacular encore in this rain forest weather.

The pansies that I planted last fall are making a spectacular encore in this rain forest weather.

And drum roll, please-- the beautiful allium flowers just exploded open!

And drum roll, please — the beautiful allium flowers just exploded open!

 

Well, that does it for today, a new downpour has started up! The upshot is no watering will be needed around here for a looooong time. Rain, rain, go away!  I know later on in the year I’ll want some more, but for now I’d like some sunshine, please!

A Walk Through the Garden on a Beautiful Summer Day

It’s a beautiful summer day here in the Washington Metro area. The humidity is low, and the temperature is mild — time for a stroll through the garden! Enjoy the tour….

The caladiums are just spectacular. Maybe my favorite new flower!

The caladiums are just spectacular; they may be my favorite new flower!

A favorite spot in the shade on the east side.

A favorite spot in the shade on the east side. The crepe myrtles have been flowering for a month and a half already!

The back yard is filling out nicely, and the "green fence" is almost solid now.

The back yard is filling out nicely, and the “green fence” is almost solid now.

This is the path up to the deck. Everything here is very full this year from all the rain we've had this month. I think we are on track to set a new record-

This is the path up to the deck. Everything is very full from all the rain we’ve had this month. I think we are on track to set a new rainfall record…

Up on the deck this year all the planters are spilling out with coleus, vinca and sweet potato vine.

All of the planters up on the deck are spilling out with sun-loving coleus, vinca and sweet potato vine.

Here's a close up of one of the planters. I am amazed at how many varieties of coleus there are. I don't know which one I like best-

I am amazed at how many varieties of coleus there are. I don’t know which one I like best…

This sweet potato vine might take over the deck if I let it!

This sweet potato vine might take over the deck if I let it!

I think my friend Stomper has the right idea- time for a nap!

I think my friend Stomper has the right idea — time for a nap!

 

 

Gardening in Historic Alexandria

Rhododendren are native to Virginia. I am lucky to have this beauty in my front garden!

Rhododendron are native to Virginia. I am lucky to have this beauty in my front garden!

I’ve been asked what it’s like to garden in the Washington, D.C. metro area, and in a word I’ll say — interesting! We are in the middle of the Atlantic seaboard, so we experience the weather extremes of both North and South and everything in between. The weather seems constantly changing, so much so that we locals joke: “If you don’t like the weather, just turn around!”  It is rarely the same two days in a row.

I live and garden in the Mt. Vernon section of Alexandria, in Fairfax County, Virginia (what a mouthful!), on property once owned and farmed by George Washington. My home is by the banks of the Potomac River, just 1 1/2 miles from the estate’s main house. This is now the eighth house I have lived in since moving to Alexandria in 1969, and each has had its own distinct micro climate!

Front left- azalea

Azalea in full bloom in my east garden. These beautiful bushes are treasured by gardeners in our region.

We are most famously known for our cherry blossom trees, but there is an amazing bounty of other beautiful natives: azaleas, dogwoods, rhododendrons, to name a few. We take pride in having a large number of flowering tree varieties. Many have been brought in by people from all over the world to represent their home cities, making for a stunningly beautiful springtime! In addition to many home garden tours throughout the year, we have the amazing U.S. Arboretum and the U.S. Botanic Gardens in Washington, D.C.

This is a blackberry lilly. These were grown by Thos. Jefferson as a curiousity. The beautiful coral flowers give way to seedpods which look like blackberries.

This is a blackberry lily. These were grown by Thomas Jefferson as a “curiosity.” The beautiful coral flowers give way to seedpods which look like blackberries in late summer.

This region is filled with history buffs (myself included!) who enjoy planting our gardens with some of the same plants as those of our country’s forefathers.

Colonial gardens were much more than ornamental; they served practical needs. Fruit trees lined walkways and often were grown in an espalier style (attaching the branches to walls or fencing) for convenience in harvesting. By growing fruit trees against brick walls, or lining herb and vegetable rows with brick paths, colonial gardeners would add warmth to the plants in cool months, extending their growing season — very important when one’s survival depended on your crop! In the picture below is a fig tree which I have been pruning to develop sideways branches for espalier. I will attach it to my east facing fireplace wall when it grows a little larger.

This is a fig tree grown from cuttings from Mt. Vernon estate.

This is a fig tree grown from cuttings from Mt. Vernon estate.

Many of the varieties of heirloom flowers, fruits and vegetables from those days are still very popular in today’s gardens. I have collected several for my own garden from the Virginia estates of two of our former presidents. My blackberry lily is from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, in Charlottesville,  and I have a special variety of boxwood from Mt. Vernon.  And of course, my favorite little fig tree started as a cutting from there, too.

An example of the homes in the historic section of Old Town Alexandria. My little green house in the center was built in 1790.

An example of the homes in the historic section of Old Town Alexandria. My little green house in the center was built in 1790, although very tiny inside, it has a 50 ft. deep back garden!

We have diverse architectural styles, from the quaint row houses of Old Town Alexandria dating back to the mid-1700′s, to the contemporary home designs of Hollin Hills (which was added to the Virginia Landmarks Register in late June and has been recommended to the National Park Service for addition to the National Register of Historic Places), each with their own unique gardening styles ranging from practical to formal to natural. So, no matter what style appeals to you personally, we have it here!

If you happen to be visiting Washington, D.C., why not tour the surrounding neighborhoods to observe the pretty gardens? If you see me tending mine, please stop and say hi and tell me about yours. Happy gardening!

Update- Here is a photo of the blackberry lily with it’s “blackberries” in bloom. The seedpods really do look like blackberries!

Seedpods of the blackberry lily. They look so much like real blackberries- Ican see why Thomas Jefferson was so enamored by them!

Seedpods of the blackberry lily. They look so much like real blackberries- I can see why Thomas Jefferson was so enamored by them!